(WASHINGTON) — The Supreme Court’s conservative majority Monday struck down a 20-year-old campaign finance limit aimed at curbing corruption in politics, delivering a win to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who had challenged the federal law.
Chief Justice John Roberts, in an opinion joined by the five other conservative justices, said that caps on a candidate’s use of campaign contributions to repay a personal loan to his or her campaign violate First Amendment rights to engage in political speech.
Cruz loaned $260,000 to his reelection campaign in 2018, one day before the vote. After the election, he was unable to recoup the full amount from campaign coffers because the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 set a $250,000 limit and imposes a strict 20-day post-election grace period for repayment.
“This limit on the use of post-election funds increases the risk that candidate loans over $250,000 will not be repaid in full, inhibiting candidates from making such loans in the first place,” Roberts wrote.
“The First Amendment ‘has its fullest and most urgent application precisely to the conduct of campaigns for political office,'” Roberts wrote, quoting from a 1971 court decision. “It safeguards the ability of a candidate to use personal funds to finance campaign speech, protecting his freedom ‘to speak without legislative limit on behalf of his own candidacy.'”
“This broad protection, we have explained, ‘reflects our profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,'” Roberts continued. “This provision, by design and effect, burdens candidates who wish to make expenditures on behalf of their own candidacy through personal loans.”
The decision means Cruz can legally recover the remaining $10,000.
Justice Elena Kagan, in a dissent joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, blasted the decision as a blow to public integrity, opening the door to self-enrichment by politicians.
“Political contributions that will line a candidate’s own pockets, given after his election to office, pose a special danger of corruption. The candidate has a more-than-usual interest in obtaining the money (to replenish his personal finances), and is now in a position to give something in return,” she wrote. “The donors well understand his situation, and are eager to take advantage of it. In short, everyone’s incentives are stacked to enhance the risk of dirty dealing.”
“At the very least—even if an illicit exchange does not occur— the public will predictably perceive corruption in post-election payments directly enriching an officeholder,” Kagan added. “Congress enacted Section 304 to protect against those harms. In striking down the law today, the Court greenlights all the sordid bargains Congress thought right to stop.”
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